Editorial Note: This essay is a candid discussion of the author’s personal experience with Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorders, including postpartum depression, and possible postpartum psychosis. It is a harsh lens into the realities of experiencing perinatal mood disorders and anxiety disorders. It includes harsh language including profanity. It is an important lens into the scary and dark place where too many new parents find themselves during the childbearing years.
If you or someone you know are experiencing perinatal or postpartum depression and/or other mood disorders, please contact the following organizations:
- Postpartum Support International, https://postpartum.net/
- SAMHSA helpline https://samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline
- National Maternal Mental Health Helpine https://mchb.hrsa.gov/national-maternal-mental-health-hotline
Our daughter P was born on July 17th and like most parents, once the adrenaline and the excitement of labor wore off, you look at this perfect, helpless baby and you think “Now what?” We were in the hospital for about four days and in those four days, my husband J and I were, essentially, also reborn. We became parents. Those days and nights were a big blur. Here is my beautiful newborn daughter, she’s finally (I think) matching the faces to the voices she’s been hearing for the past nine months. You realize how completely helpless this little human is.
I’m told I am supposed to be happy and filled with joy. Here I was sitting on the hospital toilet, crying because I’m afraid to poop. Crying every time I pee because it still stings my second-degree tear. I wake up my husband to help put on my adult diaper. Not only to help me put on my diaper, but also to physically lean on him as he builds my postpartum pad, witch hazel, ice pack, and all. We quickly learned how to “build” the new accessory that I’d be wearing for the next six weeks of my life.
P had a tough time eating, which made sense because she hadn’t had to work for anything her entire existence so far. This is when we were introduced to my hell, triple feeding. In my head, it felt like a relay race, try to get her to latch, and after that, pump your boobs for twenty minutes, and while you’re doing that, call the nurses for donor milk. Nothing makes a new mom feel better than to be told you’re not producing enough for your baby! Moreover, P had jaundice. So, when we weren’t doing our relay race, we had a short time to hold her until we had to start putting her under a tanning bed for babies. Our parents came to visit their new granddaughter and they barely had time to hold her until she was forced to go back under the tanning bed.
I was terrified to leave the hospital because up until now we were getting round-the-clock support. When we finally were discharged the hospital pediatrician scared the hell out of me and my mom. Not only did we need to see our pediatrician the next day, but we needed to introduce P to formula. We needed to keep triple feeding but because we did not have access to donor milk, they gave us a premade formula to bring home. She was of the mindset that jaundice makes its way out of the system through baby poop. The more she eats, the more she’ll poop. Her levels were still high, but we all just wanted to get out of there already.
We spent one awful night at home, were told by our pediatrician we shouldn’t have ever left the hospital because of her jaundice levels, packed up our shit again, and headed to another children’s hospital for 24 hours. At this hospital, and our earlier doctor’s office, we were told to stop feeding her formula and only give her breast milk. After we got to the hospital, and we were all settled I finally was able to have my first of many emotional breakdowns in the shower. I was in the shower because it hurt too much to sit down and pee, so I was mostly standing and peeing in the shower for the first two weeks of postpartum. My baby again had to be under these stupid tanning lights for 24 hours; I also still needed to pump and attempt to breastfeed around the clock.
Once we finally got home and my parents were still there, I decided that I would exclusively breastfeed. This plan only lasted about eight hours. We had a rough first night with her, and I did not have the patience to breastfeed her, so J bottle-fed her while I pumped. My mom came into our room around 4:30 AM and noted that I wasn’t breastfeeding her. I felt personally attacked and over-exhausted and snapped back saying I guess I must’ve given up. Breastfeeding and pumping became a source of so much of my anxiety, depression, and shame. Another time after pumping, my mother-in-law commented “Oh that’s it?” after 20 minutes of yet again forcing myself to pump. I love these two strong mothers in my life and value their support and opinion especially when it comes to being a mom. In my eyes, I was already failing at being a mom to their first granddaughter.
The next three months were torture, waking up every 2-3 hours, pumping, feeding, and diapers, on a loop, watching Gilmore Girls at 2 in the morning, and getting into constant battles with my husband. In one fight, he blamed this on me, saying I was the one who wanted this baby so badly; ‘now look at the situation I put us through’. I was truly miserable, and I made sure that my husband knew it all the time. I would say to him “I’m miserable, I’m tired, my boobs hurt, my vagina hurts.” He would tell me he was concerned, what could he do? He was already doing so much for me. He slept in the guest room with the baby for three months and woke me up only when she needed to eat, or it was time to pump.
There were nights when I swear, I saw something moving in the corner of my eye. I thought I would see my cat that died almost a year prior. I thought I saw shadows of people in my room or the kitchen. I chalked this all up to being over-tired. I would later find out that this is a symptom of postpartum psychosis. I never even heard of this diagnosis until I read about that tragic story of a mom and what she did to her children. My therapist told me that the system failed that mom. I would walk into rooms for no reason and just stand there, thinking why I was in that room. Did I need something or was I just trying to waste some time in my day?
My friends and family would call, and I would ignore any questions about how I felt. Most of the time I would just ignore any contact from the outside world in general. If I did answer, I would just say I’m tired, the baby isn’t sleeping, but I’m okay, we’re surviving. I never am one to dump my problems on my friends or family. One, I don’t feel like hearing their advice or opinions. Two, I feel like nobody wants to hear what I have to say, nobody cares how I’m feeling. Nobody can help me; I’m just going to have to survive in this moment by myself. When I did express how I felt to J or others, they would remind me to look at my baby. See how she’s starting to recognize you and smile at you? Remember that she loves you, she’s so beautiful, you should be happy! My favorite was when older family members would say “Babies cry, that’s what they do, it’s their job.” These phrases do not help someone who is questioning whether they love this being that they are essentially a slave 24/7 with very little rest.
People say when you look at your baby you instantly fall in love. That didn’t happen to me for a while. I saw her and acknowledged that this was family, my responsibility. But I never had that overwhelming sense of love. The newborn stage sucks, nobody is thanking you, the baby doesn’t know who you are, there’s shit everywhere, your boobs are out for everyone to see, and you’re wearing an adult diaper.
I was convinced that J and P had a stronger bond than I had with her. He was patient and kind to her, he never yelled at her to ‘shut the fuck up’. He never hurt himself or blamed himself for how she was feeling at that moment. He took care of her at night and knew how to put her to sleep and calm her down. All I was, was a cow; all I contributed was my milk. I didn’t have any patience for her. I had no empathy for her because I barely had empathy for myself. I never gave myself a moment to breathe, once she was down for the night J would force me to go to bed. If I didn’t go to bed, I would find shit to do because I didn’t want to be alone in the room. So, I would put the TV on and re-watch Gilmore Girls and any Bravo TV franchise, that way I never had to sit in silence.
My normal coping mechanisms were out the window. Anytime P cried I had no idea what to do with myself. I would have true tantrums. I would jump and stomp on the floor. I would pull my hair, cry, scream, scratch my arms, and bite my hands. I felt like I wanted to pull my skin off of my body. It was like I needed to be in pain to make it through the next moment of my life. I remember after a tough night with P, hitting my head on a chair at my in-law’s house, realizing how hard it was, and then hitting it again. Hitting my head with my hands, on the walls, on doors, and whatever I could to let my anger out. Bottle feeding her and when she would start to freak out, hitting the top of my head with the bottle.
I was so embarrassed over my actions that I didn’t tell anyone about these behaviors. I would bite my hand hard and wished that there would be some kind of markings on my skin so that I could tell J what was going on. I never thought about killing myself, never thought about harming the baby, or my spouse. The real reason I didn’t want to kill myself was because I didn’t want to leave J and P to fend for themselves. I was the only source of food, other than that, in my mind, they didn’t need me. That for me was one of the main reasons why I pumped and breastfed for so long. It gave me a purpose.
J and I have prided ourselves on being communicative since day one of our relationship. My postpartum depression and anxiety were bad though, the worst our relationship has ever been through. There were multiple times when I thought maybe we’d be better off just separating. We were both unemployed and neither of us even started looking for work, what was the point?
What was the point in anything I was doing? My nipples were hurting constantly, I was still bleeding, literally afraid to use the bathroom, and my husband and I weren’t even in the same bed. Was I going to feel like this forever? I kept asking J the same thread of questions; Am I going to be miserable forever, when does this start to feel better, there must be some kind of rhyme or reason to this literal torture.
We had people in and out of the house for the first three months, it was helpful but very overwhelming. They wanted us to get out of the house and be together, to enjoy having someone else there to watch the baby. My outings were never enjoyable, I was still in pain, I was still bleeding, and my husband and I were in a dark place. Why would I want to go out? I barely wanted to shower or shave my legs. What was I benefitting from leaving our house and P to get lunch downtown?
There are baby blues and there is postpartum depression. Baby blues lasts about two to three weeks, anything after that is generally cause for concern. This constant loop of depression, anxiety, and self-harming behaviors lasted for 6.5 months. J would tell me to find a therapist, and so would my mom. This is without much knowledge of my self-harming especially from my mom. I finally got insurance from my job and was able to find a therapist.
I have to be open and say that I’m still not feeling 100%, there are still days where I self-harm. There are days that I’m yelling at my 7-month-old daughter for doing nothing more but telling me that she’s tired and hungry in her own way. I still take my anger out on J when I’m having a hard day. Thankfully, these actions are becoming less and less. I’m starting to recognize who I was before I was a mom. There were moments when I was deep into my depression, I had no clue who I was or why I was there. I finally feel like I can see the light on the other side. I have time to breathe and appreciate my life, my beautiful baby, my sweet dog, my loving husband, and this family we’ve created. It will take time and I don’t believe that I will fully recover from my PPD/A but I’m trying every day to be a little better than I was the day before.
Emma is a DONA certified birth doula and served as one full-time for three years in NJ and FL. She was and is still extremely passionate about being a birth doula and serving families. After becoming pregnant, she put her work aside to enjoy pregnancy and motherhood. She is a New Jersey native living in Palm Beach FL with her husband, baby, and dog. This is her first published work, she hopes to be a certified postpartum doula to serve families and educate them in PPDA. Find her on Instagram at http://instagram.com/empoweringemma.